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Short story writing: point of view, part 2

The meaning of point of view

Point of view in this context has nothing to do with its usual meaning, 'Opinions' , it is a technical term which can be roughly translated as 'subjective viewpoint' , or 'subjective experience', and it is essential that once you have chosen who's subjective experience we are sharing you stay with it from beginning to end, because a subjective viewpoint is, by definition, exclusive of all others. Thus if your central character is John, then everything in the story represents what John experiences. We can know how John feels and what he is thinking and what he perceives, but we do not have access to this 'inside information' about any other character. Through John we can see how they behave and hear what they say, but we cannot know what they are feeling thinking, or perceiving inside themselves. This reproduces the way we experience other people in real life - we do not know what is going on inside them until they demonstrate it in some way.

At the same time the one character we cannot see from the outside is John himself. The only way we can get information about how others see him is when another character tells him. A good thumb-rule to bear in mind is: 'The reader cannot know anything the central character does not know'. Another helpful way of looking at it is to see the central character as the camera through which the whole story is seen.

In some stories written in this mode you might find the author bending the rules in order to describe the central character's appearance, or the expression on his face. In my view this should not be done because it constitutes breaking the point of view and weakens the story. If you really need to describe the central character's appearance it can easily be done by contriving to have him look in a mirror.

As well as not knowing how he appears to others, and not being able to see his own face, John does not know what other characters are doing when he is not with them. He could soon find out though, by meeting them, being told about them by someone else. Again, this simply reproduces the way we gain knowledge about other people in real life.

The same principles apply in first person stories, when the central character is I . In fact writing from the central character's point of view is more closely related to writing in the first person than many beginners realise. You should imagine yourself as the central character, but write 'he' or 'she' or 'John' or 'Mary' instead of I.

By the end of the first paragraph the reader should be sharing the point of view of the central character and identifying with that character. If you then switch into a different point of view you will disrupt this identification and the reader will lose interest. In a novel, when the process is very carefully controlled, it is possible to have the reader identifying with more than one character, but this is not possible in a short story, or at least it is extremely unlikely that it will result in a good short story. So choose one point of view, and stay with it.

Descriptive Passages

Deciding when and how to use descriptive passages often causes problems among beginners. The key to understanding their use is that they are never put in for their own sake, but, like everything else in the story, they are seen from the central character's point of view, and are an extension of his or her state of mind.

Thus if Janet is feeling happy and free she will notice the sunshine, the beautiful blossom on the trees, the lovely green hills receding into the distance. If she is feeling dejected and unfulfilled she will notice the dust on the bookshelves, the rain on the windows, the dirt on the kitchen floor, and the noisy neighbours.

So descriptive passages are relevant only when they contribute to the plot by revealing the central character's state of mind.

Point of view should be controlled

Whichever point of view you select, it is important that the point of view should be controlled, and not jump about erratically. Frequently I found that a student’s story would start off well, then part way through the first page the point of view would jump from one mode to another, and would proceed haphazardly through the rest of the story. Inconsistency in point of view is bound to disrupt the reader’s engagement with the narrative.

Point of View is all-pervasive

It will be seen from this that point of view is all-pervasive. The point of view is the window through which we see the story, and that window represents a single human consciousness. I have said enough here to enable you to study its workings in the stories you read in magazines, and in your own work, and to use it to give your stories strength and unity.

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